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Food as Medicine - A Modern Approach to an Age-Old Adage

Hippocrates, the man who coined the popular wellness phrase, "let food by thy medicine" lived in Ancient Greece around 400BCE. He was most likely consuming freshly harvested food, free of pesticides and over-processing. Many say he lived to be over 80 years of age, matching the current life expectancy in Australia which is around the same. Food choices then are very different to now. While having an abundance of food available is considered favorable, convenience can be the downfall of societal health and wellness.

The (De)Evolution of food choices

Using food as medicine is a tricky balance in the modern age due to the saturated market of food choices. Many foods available play no medicinal benefit at all, engineered to have bloated levels of addictive macronutrients and high caloric value. The joy of consuming these foods floods dopamine deprived brains with happiness. In Nutritional theory these foods are considered "Discretional Choices" as they don't neatly fit into a specific food group. They are usually processed or non-nutritive and some even have been declared health risks by the World Health Organization. These foods are often linked with pain, poor health markers and higher risk for chronic illness.

Discretional Choices Table: Australian Government (NHMRC) Eat for Health 2013

A Moderation & Critical thinking Cocktail

The line can be fuzzy between medicinal and discretional however, with chocolate and red wine being two examples. Even honey is dumped into this food void, with its sugar content outweighing medicinal value according to the experts. To play devil's advocate here, the antibacterial effect of manuka honey on an upper respiratory infection means honey is used very sparingly and not very often.

In saying that, it seems that the compromise with these blurry-lined items is finding the best one and enjoying in moderation. The lesser of two (or more) evils if you will. For example, 90% cocoa chocolate is usually lower in sugar, while preservative free, organic wine reduces toxic burden. (I also would argue that a well-made taco could make for quite a balanced meal when compiled a certain way!)

Burden vs. Benefit

Most foods, if consumed too often or in large amounts present a burden rather than a benefit. This might be due to possible heavy metal toxicity, nutrient excess, the presence of anti-nutrients such as phytates or oxalates, chemicals used in growing, hormone use, and the list goes on.

Also, there is the individuality of health where one food does not fit all. Putting allergies aside, tolerance of even the healthiest foods isn't possible for everyone. In many instances there's nothing wrong with the food, but more so the environment it is entering. A stressed, tired and undernourished body can become an unwelcoming landscape for beneficial foods. An example of this is fermented products such as kombucha and sauerkraut being great for the microbiome but could be hellish for histamine intolerance or people with active allergies.

Food as Modern Medicine

In terms of preventing and treating conditions and deficiencies, dietary intake is very important. Often health conditions and deficiencies go hand in hand, illustrating the need for dietary interventions for any health complaint. Certain ways of eating are linked to absent risk factors for chronic illnesses and recovery of physical and mental/emotional ailments.

One such well-researched dietary selection is Mediterranean eating, with its high polyphenol content often linked with lowered disease activity, more effective mood balance and a superior quality of life. Lots of vegetables, fish, wholegrains and nuts provides much welcome variety, making it an appealing option for anyone looking to improve their physical and mental health.

Putting it into Practice

  • Eat a variety of different foods - this means a range of nutrients and a happier microbiome.

  • How much processed food is in your life? Can you live without it? Are there things you can make yourself with better ingredients?

  • Find nutrient dense foods that bring you joy.

  • Limit discretionary extras (as above).

  • Eat Organic if possible.

  • Include lots of Vegetables and a bit of fruit.

  • Don't overdo one particular food.

  • Consider completing a diet diary for analysis.

  • Visit a practitioner to evaluate your individual dietary needs.

Are there foods you can't live without and need help finding alternatives?

Book a consultation today for dietary assistance.

Jo Knight – Naturopath @ Purple Tree Therapies

BHlthSc(ComplMed), Adv Dip Nat., Adv Dip Nut., Adv Dip. WestHerbMed

Located at Habitual Health Collective, New Farm, Qld. Sources

Bayes, J, Schloss, J & Sibbritt, D, 2019, ‘Effects of Polyphenols in a Mediterranean Diet on Symptoms of Depression: A Systematic Literature Review’, Adv Nutr, vol. 11, pp. 602–615

Godos J, Castellano S, Ray S, Grosso G, Galvano F. Dietary Polyphenol Intake and Depression: Results from the Mediterranean Healthy Eating, Lifestyle and Aging (MEAL) Study. Molecules. 2018 Apr 24;23(5):999. doi: 10.3390/molecules23050999. PMID: 29695122; PMCID: PMC6102571. Jacka, FN, Cherbuin, N, Anstey, KJ, Sachdev, P & Butterworth, P, 2015, ‘Western diet is associated with a smaller hippocampus: a longitudinal investigation’, BMC Med vol. 13, no. 215.

Wu, PY, Lin, MY & Tsai, PS, 2020, ‘Alternate healthy eating index and risk of depression: A meta-analysis and systemematic review’, Nutr Neurosci, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 101-109.


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